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Defining your role as ‘trailing spouse’

Living overseas is challenging, there’s no doubt about it. Living overseas as a “trailing spouse” (we prefer “expat partner”—it’s not catchy but it’s less judgemental of both marital status and spirit) is extra challenging. Many expat partners feel caught between a rock and a hard place. They miss their careers and the identity and independence that came with them. Yet, doing something while they are overseas feels like they are going down a tiny side street off a road that is already less travelled. Few people around them are working. Some moan about missing their professional selves but they often seem reluctant to make changes.  

If you’re thinking about how you continue with your own professional and personal development while you’re abroad, here are five questions we recommend all expat partners ask themselves before they commit themselves to a course of action, whether it be job hunting, starting a business, studying or significant volunteering.

1. Do you really want to do things differently?

This might seem counterintuitive; after all, we’re all about helping people to develop themselves while they are overseas. But in an environment where choosing to work, create a business, study or undertake a significant volunteer role may make you the exception not the rule, it takes courage and commitment to make the choice and see it through. Depending how long you’ve been in a supporting role, your choice might also require significant renegotiation or responsibilities within your family to give you the time and space to pursue your own development. Having that commitment will give you resolve and spare you from the dreaded FOMO (“fear of missing out”) as you look at your friends’ Facebook statuses.  

2. Do you know what makes you tick?

If you’re looking for a change of direction, understanding your values, your beliefs, your priorities and your strengths can help you to decide what you really want to pursue. By evaluating opportunities with a clear perspective of what makes you tick, you are more likely to make a decision that is right for you. We’re not necessarily talking about discovering your “passion” in life here though. Passion is great and if you can do something you’re passionate about, go for it. But passion can be a really narrow concept and making the lack of passion a barrier can mean that you miss out on a host of pursuits that would give you a great deal of fulfilment.

3. Do you know what you want to get out of what you choose to do?

We know lots of people who want so much to do something; they end up jumping at the first volunteer role that comes their way. Six months later, they’re putting in the equivalent hours to a full-time job and they hate it. It’s all too easy to jump into roles (paid or voluntary) without really thinking about what you want to get out of it. So know ahead of time what your objectives are. For some, it might be having an income or spending time with adults. For others it might be maintaining or developing skills or acquiring new skills. Perhaps it’s about a new direction. Whatever your motivation, being clear about it will help you to make the right choices.

4. How do you say no?

When you’re clear on what makes you tick and what you want to get out of whatever you do, you can make choices. Of course, you might not get everything you want but when you make compromises, they’ll be conscious ones. However, as you look, you’ll come across opportunities that sound really interesting. You’ll know someone who does the same thing and just loves it. Or there will be an opportunity to volunteer with an organisation that seems really worthy and desperately need your help. Here’s the thing—it’s got to be right for you too. So regardless of how much fun your friend is having, or how worthy the cause, on balance, the right thing might be to say no. Even if there’s not another opportunity out there just yet. And that’s really hard. Giving yourself the space to think before you commit and having rehearsed a graceful way out if you need it can be essential.

5. What support do you need to make it happen?

You’ve decided you’re going to go for it. You’ve got your partner on board but it’s time to get specific about what you need. Think about all the different places you can get support. Your family, your new expat friends, your personal and professional networks can all support you in different ways—ask them for the specific help you need. If there are gaps in the support you need, how are you going to fill them? Are you prepared to pay for help to fill those gaps? How else might you cover them? 

This might seem like a lot to think about; analysis paralysis; but what we’re really saying in short, is that making conscious decisions about the way you live your expat life can help you build a life that is in greater alignment with your aspirations. And whether or not it works out, you’ll be able to look back without regret. 

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